The Neuroscience of Positive Emotions

Updated: Feb 20, 2020

by Dr. Mitz Serofia, Co-founder of ThriveHivePH

This was the talk that Dr. Mitz gave during a pre-valentine mental health workshop in Iloilo last February 8. The activity was initiated by team Agubayani of Global Shapers Iloilo as part of their Nurture Notes workshop series.

Allow me to begin by introducing this very unique and interesting study done decades ago that looked at the lives of nuns in Notre Dame. We focus on two particular subjects and the short autobiographies that they wrote during their vows:

Based on their writings, would you believe that researchers were able to predict who lived longer? And because they are nuns, the trick is not about the difference in their diet because they basically eat the same food, or whether they smoke or drink, or their access to medical care. Living in the convent, nuns would most likely have these variables out of the question.

So where does the difference lie? What made a huge difference were these two phrases in Sister Cicilia’s biography—very happy and eager joy—and not a hint of such cheerfulness from Sister Marguerite’s sketch.

The researchers found out that 90% of the most cheerful nuns was alive at age 85 versus 34% of the least cheerful quarter. And because it was the amount of positive emotions that predicted their longevity, it is safe to say that a happy nun, like Sister Cicilia, is a long-lived nun.

It is for this reason that positive emotions and the science behind it have become a very interesting topic of research and discovery. But before we dive into the topic further, let us take a moment to appreciate the complexity of the human brain.

I won’t go into the parts and their functions one by one because it will take us at least a semester to do that. I just want to point out that because of its complexity, there is only so much that we know about it yet. But one thing is for certain: The brain—and not the heart—is the seat of human emotions.

Emotions are subjective experiences that are accompanied by physiological, behavioral and cognitive changes and reactions that are all interrelated with each other. What it means is that our experiences spark changes in our brain activities, and whatever our brain perceives these experiences to be, it produces a change in our body language or facial reactions.

The main region associated with such events is the limbic system, a complex set of structures inside of our brain. Worth mentioning would be the thalamus, the part where most sensory information is processed; the amygdala, the fear and aggression center; the hypothalamus, which is involved in our fight-or-flight, rest-or-digest response; and the hippocampus, which converts short-term memory to long-term.

So now you know who (what) to blame when things get emotional.

Now you might ask, how in the world did neuroscientists or doctors come to know of these seemingly abstract concepts? Since the early 1990’s, advancements in neuroimaging allowed us to track brain activities in real time. One of these is the functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The parts that light up represent areas of the brain with increased brain signaling activity while a person performs a specific task. So, if I put you inside the machine and ask you to raise your hand, parts of your brain will light up, in the same way as when I ask you to think of your crush kissing you on the cheek.

There is a list of positive emotions we could think of—happiness, pride, awe, generosity, among others. But for now, I am only focusing on these three concepts: The social, compassionate, and grateful brain.

Let’s begin with the Social Brain.

Humans are wired to connect, which means that we are born with innate biological mechanisms that allow us to start forming connections with others beginning at birth. Where this prosocial behavior comes from can be explained by the neuroscience of parenting and the origins of attachment.

That said, have you ever wondered how a new mother seems to have that maternal instinct all of a sudden? And where does all that love come from?

One way to study parents’ brains is to have them listen to their baby’s cries while having their brain activity recorded.

One study found that when a mother watched a video of her infant in distress, her brain activity increased in a number of areas like the thalamus, prefrontal cortex, and the oribitofrontal cortex—areas involved in sensory processing, motivation and reward.

Scientists also noted that infant cries evoked more brain activity in mothers than watching their infant playing. What this means is that mothers have more complicated neural responses to their infants when they are in need which then cause mommies to act appropriately, thus, suggestive of what is called “maternal instinct.”

Another study found out that becoming a new parent activates a “global caregiving brain network” which is involved in vigilance, reward, motivation, cognitive empathy, and social understanding. Basically, all the nice things a parent needs.

Humans, therefore, have hard-wired brain systems in place to direct our attention to, empathize with, and be motivated to help young children.

But does the parent-child bond influence our future relationships?

To answer this, researchers studied the kinds of thoughts of parents and the ways their brains responded to the cries of their new baby, and followed up on the said baby three to four years after.

They found out that mothers who reported more anxious thoughts and actions when their child was one month old had toddlers with poorer socio-emotional skills. Meanwhile, fathers who had more positive thoughts about parenting had toddlers with greater socio-emotional skills.

This means that the relationships that we have with our parents as babies physically shape our brains and set the stage for how we interact with other people.

Our capacity for friendship may also be influenced by the care that we receive when we are infants. So, if you know someone who’s not at all friendly, you could say he or she probably had a rough start as a baby.

Now we move on to the more intriguing part, the neuroscience of romantic relationships.

Have you ever wondered how “being in love” changes you or makes you a better person? Or how Shane West, in A Walk to Remember, falls in love with Mandy Moore and then transforms from being a jerk to a responsible young man?

The science behind this phenomenon is that romantic love decreases the activity in brain regions involved in negative emotion, avoidance behavior, and social judgment while simultaneously increasing activity in brain areas involved in reward. And whenever this reward circuit is activated, our brains note that something important is happening that is worth remembering and repeating.

Have you also wondered how some couples just instantly “click” with each other?

Neuroscientists found out that couples and not strangers showed neural and behavioral synchrony, where partners displayed similar brain signals when interacting with one another and consequently engaged in more coordinated behaviors.

The main reason behind this is the level of oxytocin or love hormone which was found higher in people in new romantic relationships (versus single people) and correlated with how interactive and in sync couples were.

Next up, the Compassionate Brain.

Here, we are more likely to ask, why is Person A more inclined to help someone in need versus Person B?

Before we answer that, let us first understand the process involved in the experience of compassion.

It begins with our immediate emotional response, or affective response. For example, when a beggar comes to us for help, we may feel distress, disgust, or tenderness or a mix of these. At the same time, we may be making judgments about this person: Is

he to blame for his situation or not? Can I trust him? When combined, they become integrated into a more complex response. For example, we may blame the person if we feel he is responsible for his suffering, or we may feel compassion for him because we feel he deserves help. And in all these three processes, obviously, certain parts of the brain are at work.

Going back to the question what makes one person more compassionate than the other, these are the differentiating factors: How we perceive other people; do we think of ourselves as individuals or as part of a group; and the similarities between ourselves and other people.

Another really interesting question is that, are humans really selfish by nature?

To answer this, let’s play the dictator’s game. Before we start, I want you to imagine that I just gave you now 1,000 pesos and I fully leave you the choice whether to give all, some or none of your money to a random stranger. What will you do? Again, you have full control. Now raise your hand if you want to give all of the 1,000 pesos away? If you want to give 100 pesos? 300 pesos? 500 pesos? Or would you rather keep the 1,000 to yourself?

What if later today, you knew that that random stranger has not eaten a single meal for days? If you gave some of that money to that guy, how did it make you feel? How about if you didn’t?

The study found out that deciding to give the money to the person who could benefit the most—the most efficient choice— activated the orbitofrontal cortex which assesses the subjective value of rewarding stimuli. Meanwhile, choosing inefficient decisions activated the anterior insula, which is involved in aversive emotions like pain and disgust.

So, if you helped that guy, did you feel good about it? If not, did you feel a bit regretful?

Therefore, we know now that people are not intrinsically selfish, but instead show an intrinsic value for fairness.

Finally, the Grateful Brain.

I would like to begin this discussion by asking, where does gratitude come from?

Evidence suggests that gratitude has deep roots in humans’ evolutionary history. To uncover these roots, researchers have looked for evidence of grateful behaviors among our non-human relatives —chimpanzees.

What’s interesting is that they have this behavior “I scratch your back, you scratch mine”. Scientists call this reciprocal altruism, whereby chimpanzees were most likely to help another chimp if that particular chimpanzee had helped them in the past.

Sounds like us, doesn’t it?

And yet why do some people seem to be naturally more grateful than others?

In one study, participants were given the opportunity to express gratitude by donating to charity some of the money they had received in an experiment.

They discovered that greater gratitude expression was correlated with more activity in the parietal and lateral prefrontal cortex, areas of the brain associated with making mental calculations. This goes to show that gratitude is a cognitive—not just an emotional process, meaning that the exercise of gratitude is also a matter of cost-benefit analysis.

Genetic variations in our body's amount of oxytocin and dopamine—the pleasure or reward hormone—can also explain the difference in the quality and frequency of our expressions of gratitude. So, if you have “ungrateful” friends, you know better now what they probably lack in them.

Other factors (outside of this talk's scope) that influence our expression of gratitude are individual factors like personality, cognitive factors, and gender; and social factors including religion, cultural influences, and parenting styles.

We have discussed quite a handful of positive emotions, but why do you think they are important?

According to Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory, our experiences of positive emotions fuel growth and change, helping build resources like skills for identifying opportunities and bouncing back from adversity. For example, moments of joy and interest—both positive emotions—start the process of exploring, learning, and connecting. Obviously, we cannot do any of these if we are either sad or angry.

But what kind of positive emotions do we cultivate, that is the question.

Suppose there is an “experience vending machine” out there that for the rest of your life would give you any positive feelings at any time as you wish, would you take it?

After giving it much thought, actually, many people wouldn’t. Because it feels as if the machine only gives us shortcuts to happiness, just as drugs, sumptuous foods, and sexual pleasures do.

Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, would say it is not just positive feelings we want—we want to be entitled to our positive feelings.

Case in point, in which of these fun instances would you feel genuinely happier? Picture A or B?

Of course, doing volunteer work will. The reason is not only because it is the more dignified choice, but helping other people allows us to make use of our personal resources and consequently own the positive feelings that come from this experience.

Seligman further advised that we can be entitled to these positive emotions by the exercise of our personal strengths and virtues—something we all have. We just have to figure out what they are.